Enter Sanma

Throughout this article, I have intentionally used terms that separate three and four player riichi into discrete styles, sanma and riichi respectively, which I feel are useful for clarity in this discussion. I’m told this is a pretty Western thing to do.

To the Western collective, sanma has be one of the most divisive flavors of mahjong I have come across. Players either enjoy it or do some pretty counter-productive things to avoid playing.

For anyone not familiar with the term, sanma is a contracted term meaning “three person mahjong” applied to a style of riichi which is just that—mahjong played with three instead of four. There isn’t a definitive set of rules, and from one source to the next there are variations in the setup, points, hands, and other details. (Anyone that has spent time looking over various mahjong rules of any kind will know this is on par.) However, it is possible to document the commonalities into a usable framework that works just fine.

Links to some rule resources are below, but to summarize how sanma differs from riichi:

  • One suit is reduced to terminals only, with tiles 2-8 of that suit removed from the game. I’ve seen character tiles called for most often, but also bamboo.
  • Chi is not allowed. Sequences must be self drawn unless tempai.
  • No North seat.
  • The North wind tile is a bonus dora.
  • Hands are similar to those in riichi with some no longer possible (sanshoku doukou for example) due to the lack of three complete suits.
  • Scores and tempai payments are adjusted to be equitable across two opponents rather than three.

Officially sanma is a simple modification to standard rules, but in my experience it plays quite differently. (Keep in mind that this is from a position as a sanma neophyte.) Hands tend to play faster, score higher, and feature a lot of pons. A good part of the average riichi tool-kit will translate, but there are some inevitable changes that will have to take place which might pull a player from their comfort zone, which may explain some of the disparity in opinion.

As I mentioned, players that I’ve spoken with whom have played sanma generally enjoy it and view it, at minimum, as a viable alternative when four players can’t be found. The Panhandle Mahjong Club (FL, USA) is actively exploring the style and finding ways to moderate the wilder point swings that come as a result of added dora. It is their intent to run a sanma side-event at their tournament this August, and possibly host a 3-player tournament sometime in the future.

Others I have spoken with would rather do something else, anything else, than not play riichi. I can’t quite tell if this stems from a purist sentiment towards riichi or from an actual dislike of the sanma style, but check out this instructional quote that illustrates the point:

Rules for sanma

Step 1: Take out the 2 to 8 man tiles
Step 2: Find or make a fourth mahjong player
Step 3: Put the 2 to 8 man tiles back in and play riichi.

Anonymous by request

You’ll be happy to know that you aren’t alone in this division of preferences, though in Japan is viewed as just ‘how things are done’. In most areas, especially throughout Tokyo, four-player is king but sanma is quite common around Osaka and the Kansai region. While you will still find preferences trending towards one style or the other, the two are viewed simply as modes of the same game: majan.

Nor is it the only style that plays well at three. Korean mahjong style, known as two-suited mahjong, eschews the bamboo suit completely and only uses a couple of North tiles, but it shares a number of rules that riichi players will easily recognize. Riichi purists (if there can be such a thing) might consider this a viable alternative to playing sanma. After all, you’re not playing “three player riichi”. You are playing a different and esoteric style all together!

Reference Links
Sanma wiki
Blog entry for sanma rules